Thursday, December 02, 2004


coffee -- quality and not; or what's in those cans, part iii

yesterday afternoon i was thrilled to hear from coffee visionary marty diedrich. i don't need to explain who he is to you coffee lovers (here and you know, here), since most of you have been drinking coffee from his family's roasting machines for years!

indeed, if you ask most consumers to describe a coffee roasting machine, they will immediately outline the classic diedrich ir-7 drum roaster for you, down to the famous red color.

what's fascinating about marty is that he's one of those true entrepreneurs who's not happy unless he's shredding the envelope in his industry, which is why he's struck out on his own to once again set a new standard for excellence in coffee.
the new coffeehouse(s) will be located in marty's homebase of southern california. he's naming them "kean," after his son; look for the first one to open around may 2005.

not only will marty be roasting his own coffee himself -- and no, i couldn't worm any info about the espresso blend out of him, not a peep! (sigh) -- he also has ambitious goals in terms of coffee quality. he intends to buy only the highest-quality, sustainable coffees from former scaa prez david griswold's firm, sustainable harvest.

and to instantly achieve world-class beverage service quality, he's retained the barista goddess sherri johns to set up his staff. but! beyond that!

marty said to me, "i really believe in the 'triple-bottom line' theory. i can't do well unless the farmers are, unless the baristi are."

what does this mean in practice? marty told me that as soon as he could get the business on a sound footing he was absolutely committed to providing a living wage to his employees -- including health insurance -- which in pricey southern california is one bold statement!

no mere "people behind the counter" (pbtc) for him! marty seems to be looking to establish his baristi on the italian model -- true professionals who will stay with him for many years on a real career path and who are encouraged to excel in their art.

let's contrast this goal with the recent news from commercial coffee land (thanks, oren for alerting me to this horrible news story!):

"we have capacity to raise the quality. that is demanded by our customers," van thanh huy, chairman of the vietnam coffee and cocoa association (vicofa), told reuters on the sidelines of a coffee conference.

industry experts say vietnam should consider wet processing and steaming to improve the taste of robusta, which will also raise the price of the beans by $100 per tonne over ordinary beans.

grade one contains 12.5 percent of moisture, 2 percent of black and broken beans and 0.5 percent of foreign matter, such as crushed stones, tree branches or nut shells."

yup: steamed robusta comprising defective beans blackened by disease, attacked by fungus (i could link to a picture of this, but the fungus is so gross-looking you'd freak out), and then mixed with tree bark; that's what you'll be drinking in "higher-quality" commercial coffee soon.

of course once they've ground it up, added the requisite amount of pelletized chaff, mixed in some not-much-better arabica for marketing cover, and put this nightmare in the cans and jars, consumers can't tell what's in it. . .

long-time readers know i often ask "what's in those cans?" now, thanks to reuters, we know; and it's just as bad as we feared. . .if the disgusting stuff above is considered news-worthy substantial improvement, and being called "grade one"!

let's take a moment to review the specialty "grade one," whole-bean coffee you can buy from your local neighborhood independent roaster/retailer or coffeehouse. specialty grade-one coffee must be free of any so-called "primary defects."

this means no black, fungus-eaten coffee beans allowed. none. zero. zip.

none of this "2% broken" allowed stuff; a mere 5 broken beans equals a full defect in specialty. that means 25 broken beans, just 25, will disqualify that coffee from being specialty grade one.

let's recap: the vietnamese commercial "grade one" above allows for 2% broken beans and that yummy fungus, with just a soupçon of tree bark. the specialty "grade one" forbids any fungus and even 1% of broken beans or tree bark disqualifies the coffee.

how do they calculate these percentages? they take a 350g (about 11 or 12 oz.) sample and count the beans, each bean individually. then they take the number of individual broken beans in that sample and compute the percentage.

you can do this for yourself at home. buy a 12 oz. bag of whole-bean coffee and count out 25 beans. look at how tiny a part those beans are of that whole bag. (to save you the headache of counting, scaa chief ted lingle tells me the average 12 oz. contains approx. 1,750 beans.)

yet in specialty coffee that tiny number of beans would disqualify the whole bag! i know many people, coming here to bccy for the first time, are confused by all my talk about coffee quality.

that's because commercial marketing doesn't educate the consumer, but instead pushes those "coffee-by-products" on its supposedly delicious aroma, as advised by the weird clotaire ripaille, who believes he can psychoanalyze us all en masse.

but we won't talk about that fake "aroma," which i am reliably informed by people in a position to know, is even sometimes artifically added to that, um, stuff!

meanwhile, most specialty roasters believe the subject is too complex for coffee lovers and so don't talk about coffee quality or coffee purity with consumers. but not so!

once you've seen the kind of green coffee usually used in commercial products placed next to that used in specialty, the entire situation is obvious (pretty jade-green good coffee left, tolerable coffee middle, "coffee-by-products" right). obvious.

the simple question to ask yourself is: "how much fungus do i want in my coffee?"

as scaa chief ted lingle sez: "buy specialty whole-bean coffee." as i say: "'cuz any fungus is scuzzy."

posted by fortune | 6:55 AM | top | link to this | email this: | links to this post | | 0 comments

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